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Critical Takeaways from OpenAI’s Testimony Before Congress

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This past week, artificial intelligence came to Washington in a big way.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman appeared before Congress for his first-ever testimony, speaking at a hearing called by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Josh Hawley.

The topic? How to oversee and establish safeguards for artificial intelligence.

The hearing lasted nearly three hours and focused largely on Altman, though IBM executive Christina Montgomery and Gary Marcus, a leading AI expert, academic, and entrepreneur, also testified.

During the hearing, Altman covered a wide range of topics, including a discussion of different risks posed by generative AI, what should be done to address those risks, and how companies should develop AI technology.

Altman even suggested that AI companies be regulated, possibly through the creation of one or more federal agencies and/or some type of licensing requirement.

The hearing, like most things in politics, was divisive. Some experts applauded what they saw as much-needed urgency from the federal government to tackle important AI safety issues.

Others criticized the hearing for being far too friendly, citing worries that companies like OpenAI are angling to have undue influence over the regulatory and legislative process.

What does this hearing mean for AI regulation?

In Episode 48 of the Marketing AI Show, I spoke to Marketing AI Institute founder and CEO Paul Roetzer to find out.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. The hearing was important, but don’t expect too much from it. There’s no doubt the hearing was a watershed moment in AI regulation. “But I would not expect much action in the near term,” says Roetzer. The motivations for the hearing are likely a mix of altruism—lawmakers actually wanting to understand AI safety issues—and political posturing. In part, both sides of the aisle are trying to understand AI in order to gauge public opinion and win votes.
  2. It’s clear companies believe they need oversight—or that oversight is coming. Based on his comments, OpenAI’s Sam Altman appears to believe that what the company is building next will have a major impact on society. “I believe he truly is trying to prepare society for this,” says Roetzer. However, it’s also likely that companies like OpenAI see regulations as inevitable, and are trying to get ahead of them by taking a leadership role during the regulatory process.
  3. The views among the hearing participants were diverse. Altman advocated for a combination of licensing and regulatory measures. IBM’s Montgomery lobbied for “precision regulation,” which means establishing rules to govern the deployment of AI for specific use cases instead of regulating the technology itself. Marcus, a vocal critic on AI safety, warned that today’s AI systems are not as transparent, privacy-focused, free of bias, and as safe as they should be.
  4. Other meetings in Washington may see more concrete action on AI. Around the same time as this hearing, three other important government meetings on AI took place. One tackled how the government should use AI in its own procurement and technology processes. Another dealt with intellectual property concerns related to AI. And a third was a public session featuring Google DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis and notable AI researcher Fei-Fei Li about AI’s impact on science and society. All three indicate there could be far more government action on AI happening outside the spotlight of the Altman hearing, says Roetzer.

The bottom line: This hearing is notable because it puts AI safety issues front and center, but it likely won’t result in serious regulatory action. However, there’s much more going on behind the scenes in Washington that just this hearing.

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